more print-on-demand goodness

An imagined scene:

You: “I’d like Just A Geek, because Wil Wheaton is funny and charming and he smells of lavender and whatever awesome smells like.”

Bookseller: “Oh, sorry, but the publisher promoted that as a Star Trek bio, and since those don’t sell, we didn’t stock it. We can order it for you, though. You’ll just have to wait two weeks.”

You: Well, how about Sunken Treasure?

Bookseller: Sorry, we’ve never heard of that.


Me: [::pained look::]

Anne: What happened?

Me: It’s like yet another person tried to buy my books in a bookstore, and cried out in anguish because nobody stocks them.

Nolan: But with the blastshield down, I can’t see anything! How am I supposed to fight?

Anne and me: What?

Nolan: I just heard you referencing Star Wars and I wanted to be part of it.

Me: I am so proud of you right now.

Man, it’s so vivid and real, isn’t it? I almost put a unicorn in there, but I thought that’d be silly. Anyway, joking aside, it’s really hard for indie authors like me to compete for shelf space in bookstores, which means that it’s harder for our reliable and potential customers to get our books. It’s just a matter of economics, really: there’s a finite amount of physical space in each store, and it makes more sense for booksellers to fill up a lot of that space with multiple copies of heavily-promoted, mainstream stock that’s going to sell like gangbusters, instead of a couple copies each of lesser-known stuff by guys like me that isn’t guaranteed to move as quickly or consistently.

Well, the rules are changing:

Revolutionary Espresso Book Machine launches in London:

It’s not elegant and it’s not sexy – it looks like a large photocopier – but the Espresso Book Machine is being billed as the biggest change for the literary world since Gutenberg invented the printing press more than 500 years ago and made the mass production of books possible. Launching today at Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road branch in London, the machine prints and binds books on demand in five minutes, while customers wait.

Signaling the end, says Blackwell, to the frustration of being told by a bookseller that a title is out of print, or not in stock, the Espresso offers access to almost half a million books, from a facsimile of Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript for Alice in Wonderland to Mrs Beeton’s Book of Needlework. Blackwell hopes to increase this to over a million titles by the end of the summer – the equivalent of 23.6 miles of shelf space, or over 50 bookshops rolled into one. The majority of these books are currently out-of-copyright works, but Blackwell is working with publishers throughout the UK to increase access to in-copyright writings, and says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“This could change bookselling fundamentally,” said Blackwell chief executive Andrew Hutchings. “It’s giving the chance for smaller locations, independent booksellers, to have the opportunity to truly compete with big stock-holding shops and Amazon … I like to think of it as the revitalisation of the local bookshop industry. If you could walk into a local bookshop and have access to one million titles, that’s pretty compelling.”

(Emphasis mine, because holy shit.)

I need to figure out how to get my books into the distribution stream for the Espresso Book Machine, because this is a fundamental game-changer for indie authors and publishers like me.

73 thoughts on “more print-on-demand goodness”

  1. This is thrilling, I love it. The whole #amazonfail thing has had me stewing about how much I want to keep my local bookshops alive, but as a fairly specialized reader (my purchases tend to be either geeky or academic… unless those are the same thing… damn) local bookshops don’t have much use, aside from picking up gifts for family. This could turn it all around, not only by expanding the catalogue of available books in each store, but also by giving the stores a revenue stream that would allow them to stock non-pod titles (thus preventing potential #blackwellfail in the future.)

  2. You might want to slow down on that, Wil. The cost per book on those machines is high, like you’ll pay an average of $55 for a three hundred page book.

  3. I was going to blog about the EBM, now you’ve beaten me to it. Damn you Wil!
    I agree, though: It’s going to change the game, if handled right. The less people between the author and the audience the better. It could be to books what mp3s were to music…

  4. This is an awesome development. I know you could have sold a ton of JUST A GEEK at the LAT Festival of Books if they had been available.

  5. holy crap that’s AMAZING!
    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to get the Barnes And Nobel in Silverdale, WA to order in or carry ANY of your books and they won’t/can’t do it. I have a copy of Just A Geek on order there that I put on order 6 months ago. They have YET to get it in.
    And I missed buying one from you at ECCC due to the ATM’s running out of cash.
    I probably should just order one online.

  6. The only B&N stores that were supportive of Just A Geek were the ones where employees actually read my blog and made sure it was stocked. Everywhere else? Not so much. It was incredibly frustrating.

  7. Right now I’d say the cost is prohibitive (both for the machine and for producing the book). It’s cool that Ingram, a national book distributor, has one, although they’re only offering the service to certain publishers (like Simon & Shuster).
    As a former bookseller (whose Indie store stocks you, btw), librarian, writer, and all-around book whore, I think the price per book is going to be the issue. There have been things like this in the past, although not anything that could get the books out on the street that fast. It’s always the cost that makes readers looks askance.

  8. I think you just provided me with the motivation I needed to revise my manuscript.
    Advantage: EVERYBODY.
    May the fruit bat be praised.

  9. A B&N near me carried JAG back when it first came out. But they put it over by the Star Trek fiction novels. I was like, “Really? This isn’t fiction.” They were like, “Ya, really. It’s a Star Trek memoir.” Me: *facepalm*
    Also, ZOMG the print on demand book machine is the most awesome thing I’ve ever heard of!

  10. I wonder how possible it might be to hack on of these to access the database? Not that I’m suggesting such a thing, I have enough problems with normal photocopiers…
    Sidenote: Just A Geek and Dancing Barefoot arrived from Amazon this morning. Wheee..!

  11. I’ve worked at both Borders and numerous indies and find that it’s the indies that really try to stock smaller presses, or make an effort to get you a book from a smaller press if you order one. The “big box” guys, especially now, are very restricted about what they can carry by their Corporate offices. You’re right, it does suck.

  12. Will,
    Are your books available for the any of the eBook readers (FLIPia, Kindle 2, eSlick) or available in DRM’d PDF that can be read on any computer or Smart Phone?
    There is an app on the iPhone (Classics: which uses the out of copyright eBooks from Project Gutenberg (
    With the new iPhone 3.0 software it will be possible to purchase additional material from within apps (Microtransactions) that may allow you to sell your materials to the 30+ million iPhones/iPod Touchs in use through an app like Classics (call it Contemporaries).

  13. Quick! I need a time-machine!
    Or something that can slingshot me around the sun. Because that always seems to work in various Sci-Fi (SyFy?!?) shows.

  14. Very cool, though as others have mentioned, the cost per book has got to come down before it’s going to be able to go mainstream.
    On a semi-related subject (since I couldn’t see a post about this anywhere), I bought Just A Geek for my Kindle after you tweeted about it a few days ago. I love love love it, but the formatting bummed me out. Not only was the introduction goofy, but the formatting inside was such that I couldn’t tell where a blog entry ended. Very annoying that those transitions weren’t set off somehow.

  15. True, I guess… I did stock them for a while in my shop with a recommends tag on it, and lots of people recognised you. Thing is, Just a geek is only available in hardback, and most people aren’t willing to pay full price on any books anymore, especially hardbacks. The problem with books like yours is the marketing… it is specialist because it’s only known to a certain group of people, unlike Dan Brown (who can’t write for shit, if you ask me, you’d outdo him anytime… suck up alert, sorry). If a book is widely marketed, more shops are willing to stock it. Sometimes word by mouth and bookseller recommendations to their head office can do the trick and get books into campaigns. The problem with these new Expresso printers is that people still can’t browse and get a taste for it before they decide to buy, unless they have already decided to buy it. All it might do is shift the sales from online to a bookstore because it is available much quicker that way.

  16. DRM is evil and I hate it. I will never willingly infect anything I release with DRM.
    Having ranted, now I’ll answer your question: Sunken Treasure is available as a non-DRM PDF from Lulu for $5. I’m working out other formats for it and my other books and hope to have something ready sooner than later. Just A Geek was just released on the Kindle by O’Reilly, but I don’t know if they’re doing the same thing with Dancing Barefoot.
    I really hope that I can figure out a way to use microtransactions in the future. I bet I could sell thousands of things at $2 per unit that way.

  17. Don’t even get me started about the formatting screw ups on Just A Geek, print or otherwise.
    I’m really sorry about that, but it’s completely out of my hands.

  18. And if it’s any consolation, celebrity biographies are generally flopping like hell on the book market at the moment, with rare exceptions. I really don’t know why, because one would think they have a recipe for success just due to their nature. I find it’s only really scandalous people who make sales, and their scandals have to be quite recent, too… e.g. Jade Goody, Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross (sorry, very UK here), that lot. Success for all the wrong reasons… not necessarily because it’s well written and interesting.

  19. Wow, this is really great. Add this to downloadable PDF versions, like you did recently, and indie authors REALLY get a chance to gain exposure for their books. The whole digital age thing making people who create work aimed at MY interests is so awesome.
    I just read an article about Felicia Day being able to make geek-focused content for the web that major networks would never touch but are wildly popular among “our peoples” (which, of course, I can’t find again) and I really like seeing any new distribution channel which means more exposure for content that people (read: me) actually want to see.

  20. My biggest problem with O’Reilly went sort of like this:
    Me: Please don’t market this as a Star Trek book. First of all, it isn’t, and second of all, that’s not going to help bring in potential readers. It’s just over-marketing to the readers we can already reach.
    O’Reilly: Quiet, you. We know what we’re doing.
    I also hired a publicist at great expense to help promote the book. It went something like this:
    Publicist: We’re going to do a campaign about how you’re not a fucked up child star!
    Me: Um. Yeah. Could we not do that? Could we maybe, you know, promote the book for what it is?
    Publicist: Quiet you. We know what we’re doing. Also, we’re going to promote you in tandem with Richard Fucking Simmons and his Cruise, because that makes a lot of sense. Now pay us for doing exactly nothing to help you.
    I can’t help but wonder how Just A Geek would have done if the people who were supposed to be marketing it had actually, you know, listened to my fucking LIFETIME of experience dealing with the benefits and liabilities of Star Trek and the entertainment industry. I can’t really blame big box stores for not carrying it, or shelving it in stupid places, because the damn PUBLISHER didn’t – and still doesn’t – get it.
    Anyway, thank you for your support and for giving me a chance in your store.

  21. It’s all good. The book was still amazing. I kept rooting for you to become a writer, even though I knew how it turned out (the whole “reading it in your book” thing was kind of a dead giveaway). I’ve been trying to decide if I want to post a review on Amazon about it, but I don’t want to goof up the rating on something dumb like formatting.

  22. This just seems like someone inventing really extra springy, battery powered horseshoes that give a smoother, faster riding experience, just to compete with those weird, newfangled car things.

  23. As @wilw might say: “It is so cool to live in the future.”
    This is at least part of the reason I do so much of my book shopping online. I LOVE bookstores. I love the atmosphere – the sensory input; I love browsing for new (to me) authors and books; I love knowing that I am (usually) among other bibliophiles.
    But, when I’m looking for something specific – I’m all about the instant gratification. If I want a specific title, I don’t go to a bookstore. I just go to the awesome-scented interwebs and the necessary tomes magically show up on my front porch. :)
    This machine sounds uber-awesome. But I don’t really see it replacing Amazon and the like. I think (fear) e-distribution (a la kindle) will be the (long-term) future of book sales.

  24. I have only seen Just A Geek available from their sellers, not from Amazon themselves. Having had mixed luck with the marketplace, did you get a good seller? Or did you find it from Amazon themselves and I’ve somehow completely missed seeing it?

  25. 1st) I totally did a post involving unicorns the other day and two of my kids.
    Me:I’m a unicorn!
    Delenn: No you’re not.
    Me: I’m a unicorn!!
    Delenn: No, you’re a mom!
    Me: Tell me I’m a unicorn!
    Kahlan: You’re a unicorn, now be quiet.
    2nd) That is the coolest thing since sliced bread.

  26. This means I could get my grubby paws on the entire set of John Carter of Mars book series and the single Amanda Quick novel Chapters claims to be able to backorder but can’t be bothered, price be damned.

  27. Wow! A response with an answer, in just minutes. I wish I could get that kind of response for everyone I had to deal with.
    I’m glad you don’t like DRM, not being able to freely port stuff I own in the present or future is unfair (no matter what Apple implies with FairPlay) and a bad idea.
    I’m glad you have had some success getting your stuff out in alternative formats and I can’t wait until microtranactions take off and get implemented in a broad range of products and not just video games.
    Thank you for the response. From a Tweet to a chat to a fan.

  28. Did you really name your kids Delenn and Kahlan? That is… probably the 2nd coolest thing I’ve heard today (after the magical print-on-demand machine).

  29. I wish chain bookstores didn’t suck, and I wish advertisers had any sort of clue about niche markets…but we all managed to find your books anyway, so I guess the traditional system didn’t completely fail.
    The whole print-on-demand idea looks like a pretty cool thing IF you already know what book you want, but otherwise I think it will fall short. What can replace the picking-up-a-random-book-off-the-shelf experience? If I had a penny for every book I picked up on a whim, flipped through while getting caffeinated in the cafe, and then bought…well, I could probably keep myself in new books for the rest of my life.

  30. Why not sell DRM-free e-book versions yourself right from your website? You’d probably need to change more than $2 to cover transaction overhead, but I’d bet you’d still push a lot of units. And you’d never go out of print!

  31. Off topic, just wanted to say that I enjoy your writing and to congratulate you on being a clue in the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle yesterday!

  32. Ha thats excatly what happened to me… I asked the guy if they had any Wil Wheaton books and he checked, and they had some, but none in stock. I don’t know if they just weren’t in stock or if they just didn’t sell them there or not.. but any way he asked me if I wanted to order it so I was like “yeah” and got Just A Geek a week or so afterwards.. but that is so incredibly awesome that they are doing that! That will help out people like me so much because all of the books I want I can never fine, like “Toy Soldiers” by William P. Kennedy and Asimov’s “Guide To Shakespear”, which I heard about from Just A Geek. I am an aspiring actress and Wil said it’s a must read for actors soo.. p.s. The Liars Club came in today :)

  33. Wait- how’d you know tat happened to me last Tuesday at Books-a-Million. They had the Star Trek Magna with your story in it, but no Just a Geek. This machine sounds like the coolest ever. There are books I need new copies of, books I want copies of that are hard to find classics, and newer books that just are not stocked, even by some very big name writers because they came out more than a year ago. Example local KC author Jim Butcher, upon finding out that he lives in the area I decided I needed to support the local fantasy writer and went to the aboved mentioned Books-a-Million after seeing an ad for a release party for his latest Dresden Files novel. They didn’t have the new one(out the week before), only last years now out in paper back and the lastest for his The Codex Alera. The guy’s a local best selling author, and the biggest bookstore in KCKS has next to nothing. It’d be much easier to go over to a machine than drive all over town to find stuff. I could order online- but I’m in KS in the spring, I like my books dry, and I have neighbors who might walk off with a package.

  34. Wil, I’ve been from one side of this country to the other and I’ve seen a lot of strange bookshops, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s a book called “Just a Geek” out there… what’s that?
    Oh, sorry, my wife just reminded me I bought it through Amazon. Don’t mind me, this wasn’t the comment you were expecting, go about your business, move along, move along.

  35. That’s really a crying shame. I got it at the thing on Friday and I read it all in one go, Saturday night/ Sunday morning. It’s really not about Star Trek (only it is) and it’s really good. I am now eagerly awaiting the next book (and considering getting Sunken Treasure… somewhere).
    When does your next book come out?

  36. You really should try to get in contact with Blackwell. Even if they can’t help you, they’re so delightful to deal with that they’ll be a bright spot in your day. I used to work with the distribution unit when I was a library associate. Fabulous, just fabulous!

  37. In defense of all (not just big box) bookstores: Just a Geek is seriously old by book standards, and since it didn’t do especially well when it was first released (see my rants in this thread and elsewhere) it’s entirely unrealistic to expect them to stock it now.

  38. I dunno, there are an awful lot of good books I’ve caught up on because of electronic distribution – books that unfortunately turned me off because of yet another busty sword-and-sandle or castles-and-dragons cover or something equally dreadful. The “You might also like ….” function has let me sample alot of wares. If the bookbinding machine is connected to a similar interface (especially through the internet), then this won’t be so bad. It would be great with comics. I imagine Scott Kurtz is already trying to come up with a down payment on one… :)

  39. As a longtime fan of Lulu – I’ve published two books through the site – I’ve been absolutely thrilled to see you embracing the site and the POD model since the release of “Sunken Treasure.” Hopefully it opens people’s minds up a bit regarding the quality of the works available – Are there shoddy, amateurish books on Lulu? Sure there are. And how is that different from a bookstore stocking “The Mothman Prophecies,” exactly? – and also to the usability of the site itself. I’ve run into people who would rather order directly from me because they feel odd about having to register to buy from Lulu. (Though they have no problem doing the same via Amazon. Oh, well.)
    And the cheap, DRM-free downloads are icing on the cake. The only complaint I’ve heard about those is that they don’t include the cover images, apparently.
    POD thanks you. Looking forward to Penguicon!

  40. I dont agree with or like these machines. They are going to kill bookstores and that isnt good. Bookstores have a unique energy and soul to them and I will be very sad when they are gone.
    Now get off my lawn…

  41. The same was said about moveable type, guitar bands and Fred Astaire.
    People want this because bookstores can’t and won’t stock certain books.

  42. Why would this kill a bookstore? Wouldn’t it bring additional revenue to stores, by allowing anyone to walk in and ask for virtually any book ever written in exchange for filthy lucre?
    Maybe I’m missing something, but I thought something like this would actually help bookstores.

  43. If you follow the slippery slope for a moment, then the bookstore could become a mere printshop–with no need for shelves, or books, or employees who know anything about books. All they’ll need is the POD machine, and someone who knows how to operate it.
    If a bookstore doesn’t have shelves full of books I’ve never seen–and a staff that cares about them–then I’m a lot less interested. (And it sounds as if I’m not the only one…)

  44. Ugh. That sounds horrible.
    I counter that people who love books enough to open and maintain a bookshop wouldn’t ever let that happen.

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